Centre for Continuing Education

Art History Course: Representations of the Body

Art history. Explore humankind’s amazing cultural heritage.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.

Representation of the body in art can be understood as the most profound expressions of human experiences and emotions – from the universal to the personal.

This course takes participants on a journey of insight into key artistic movements from the Renaissance to modernism.

You will learn how early artists explored the body, the development of innovative artistic techniques they used to do this, and the insight they continue to reveal into shifting attitudes towards humanity, our fears and desires and our place in the world.


The course provides a greater level of insight into the role and importance of figurative expression in Western art, from the Renaissance through to Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • discern and distinguish between key artistic styles and movements
  • familiarise yourself with the various ways the human form was expressed in early to modernist Western art
  • appreciate the varying manners in which artists applied new techniques and experimental approaches to depicting the body
  • identify with the systems and semiotics involved in depicting the body in art, their meaning and significance.


The course contains six modules following an historical timeline. Each module addresses a particular artistic movement, or connected movements.

In each class, new insights are provided into the way artists of the time explored the representation of the body through a variety of mediums; from painting to sculpture and photography, and the various methods they employed.

The body at the centre of art: the material and metaphorical

Renaissance and Baroque

This module focuses on the formative period in Western art history, the Renaissance. Discussion focuses on the key artistic expressions of this period.

  • The study of the body, inspired by the new field of anatomical science.
  • The rise of the Baroque style and figurative spectacle.
  • The divine, saintly and royal human body contrasted with the passive yet erotic nude.
  • The body as a metaphor for socially constructed ideals and values.
  • The role of gender, including the sexualised female form.
  • The significance of select female artists taking on the male-dominated art world, particularly in the realm of portraiture and self-portraiture.

From the ideal to the emotional and the everyday body

Neoclassical, Romanticism and Realism

This module looks to the dramatic changes in how the body was depicted in Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism.

  • The 18th century Age of Enlightenment, and the artistic influence of the rediscovery of classical Greco Roman sculptures and frescos.
  • The formalising of the canon of Western art including the highly idealised and Anglicised way of representing the body, particularly in historic allegory.
  • 19th century Romanticism’s rejection of Neoclassicism’s tradition of reason, order and ‘properness’ in place of emotive bodily expression, imagination and feeling.
  • The counter-response of Realism, which from the second half of the 19th century sought to show humanity beyond the rich, royal, historic or fantastical, with raw expression of everyday life at the beginning of the Industrial Age, marking the start of socially conscious art.

The fractured body and modern ways of seeing

Photography and Cubism

This module looks to the rapid shift in the artistic representation of the body, influenced by photography, film and new technologies from the 19th to early 20th century.

  • The invention of film and photography as breakthrough technological methods of depicting the body in a manner the human eye could not observe, such as movement and x-ray.
  • The expansion of new ways of seeing and heightened abstraction in art, with the development of Cubism, a dynamic painting style that reduces the body to a series of geometric flat planes, distorting the logic of one-point perspective.
  • The influence of non-European figurative sculpture, including African and Iberian, and its challenge to notions of beauty and bodily ideals, marking the start of the cultural Avant-Garde and beginning of art’s transcendence of national and cultural barriers.

The inner body: ideology and the subconscious

Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism

This module explores Avant-Garde thinking in the early 20th century, with the development of Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism, and use of the body to express political commentary and internal psychologies.

  • The advancement of Expressionism, a highly personalised abstract approach to symbolising the body in states of physical and psychological angst, including in response to the traumas of WWI.
  • Dada’s radical challenge to the rise of nationalism and rejection of traditional artistic mediums through the introduction of a novel form of artistic expression – early performance art.
  • The development of Surrealism, influenced by new philosophies of psychoanalysis, as a means to symbolically express the inner workings of the mind in experimental film, photography, sculpture and installation.

The disappearing body and the birth of a new form of expression

Abstract Expressionism

The final module looks to Abstract Expressionism, perhaps the most recognisable modernist art movement that dramatically changed how the self is expressed in art, and how we engage with it as audiences.

  • The shift of the centre of Western art from Europe to the US following WWII and rapid advancement of progressive methods of painterly expression, most notably Abstract Expressionism.
  • The rejection of figurative representation in Abstract Expressionism, and its replacement with the ‘imprint’ of the artist in large, gesturally expressive canvas works.
  • The maturing of the audience’s engagement with art, including the transportative, near secular experience that could be found in meditation on colour, pattern, movement and texture.
  • The paradigm shift whereby audiences' self-reflective interaction with art completed its meaning and significance, foregrounding the rise of happenings, performance art and the birth of conceptual practice.

Intended audience

Suitable for those with the simplest of understanding of Art History, but a passion to know more.



Delivery style

Audio-visual seminar presentation and group discussion.


Notepad and pen, and an open mind.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

What others say.

  • Tutor was excellent and the subject interesting - beyond the usual offerings of popular standard historical periods and movements.
  • Great topic. Absolutely fantastic lecturer. Amelia made the course so interesting and encouraged group participation. She listened to everyone's point of view and made everyone good about being there and getting involved. I would definitely do further art history classes if they were offered. Thank you for a great course.
  • I enjoyed this course immensely. Dr Amelia Kelly was passionate about the subject and her style of teaching was very engaging. I particularly liked the interactive nature of the classes and the opportunity for discussion.
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